Offenders in Scotland suffering from mental health issues should not be jailed, and instead should be given treatment to deal with their problems, a new report has said.
Up to 80 per cent of Scotland’s 7,500 prisoners have mental health problems, including schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and personality disorders.
Mental Health And Scotland’s Prison Population says more community sentences and medical help should be given to many in these groups.
A recent Government overhaul of medical services for inmates – which saw the NHS take over from the prisons’ own health service – has not led to any improvement since 2011, according to the report by the Scotland Institute think tank.
Its executive chairman, Dr Azeem Ibrahim, said: “Putting people with mental illnesses in prison is, in part, further victimising people who are vulnerable and need help on the one hand, and on the other, it is clearly not the way to help rehabilitate these people and prevent reoffending.
“We argue that where criminal behaviour has been at least in part prompted by mental health issues, the best approach would be to tackle that first, rather than go directly to imprisoning these individuals.”
He added: “We want to be clear that where offenders have a history of mental illness which can be addressed before sending them to prison, that should always take priority – especially when it comes to sentencing women, where the evidence shows that imprisonment does not only affect the individual concerned, but also creates problems for others around them.”
Scotland had the highest rate of incarceration in the EU up until 2011, when the prison population topped 8,000. It has since been falling and the SNP Government has taken action to phase out the use of short prison sentences of three months as they are deemed to have no effect on re-offending.
The report finds that by some measures, 80 per cent of all prisoners in Scotland have a mental disorder, and certainly, 80 per cent of women in Cornton Vale fall into this category. By comparison, only 1-1.5 per cent of the general population have serious mental health problems.
“The correlation between incarceration and mental health problems is clear,” it adds.
With fresh proposals on sentencing guidelines for Scotland’s courts expected next year, the report says this is an opportunity to “rethink” the current approach.
But it warns: “Placing people with mental health problems in jail simply worsens the situation. Thus the new sentencing guidelines need to be clear that there are groups of individuals who should never be sent to prison.” The problem is compounded by the poor provision of mental health services throughout Scotland, with the current system “stretched and struggling to meet the needs of our communities”.
The NHS is now being urged to be clear about how it will meet the mental health needs of prisoners and ex-offenders and break down the barriers to them accessing services. Last night, a Scottish Government spokesman said: “The evidence is clear that short-term prison sentences are ineffective at reducing re-offending.
“We are determined to continue reducing the use of custody where short sentences are the option, to see imprisonment used as the option of last resort. We believe a more effective approach is to have a greater focus on the use of community alternatives to custody. That is why we introduced Community Payback Orders. CPOs are community sentences which ensure offenders pay back to the community, whilst also addressing the underlying causes of their offending behaviour, which can include providing support for mental health issues.”